Considering the similarities between prog rock and jazz fusion, it’s surprising there hasn’t been more cross-pollination between them. Adam Holzman is one of the few keyboardists who can claim high-profile gig in both genres—and profile doesn’t get much higher than working with Miles Davis.
Adam started with Davis as a synth programmer, and appeared on Davis’ famously electric album Tutu. For four years starting in 1985, Adam toured with Davis, using synthesizers and effects to help realize “the sound of the Gil Evans orchestra with a small band.” When co keyboardist Robert Irving III left, Davis appointed Adam the new musical director.
Today finds Holzman working with prog icon Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree. Acting on advice from Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess, Wilson initially recruited Adam to help tour the Grace for Drowning album. Holzman has since recorded with Wilson on his latest, The Raven that Refused To Sing, which was engineered by Alan Parsons We caught up with Adam about the gear and techniques behind recording and touring the new record.
The Raven sounds very arranged, yet with lots of room for musicians to stretch out. How much was composed versus improvised?
Time was tight, but we’d done some preparation and homework with demos. When the actual recording started, we did one song a day. We’d record six or seven takes and pick the best one. Alan Parsons really was fantastic at getting everything sounding great. The solos were improvised, the comping was improvised, and all tracking was done live. Doing the rhythm tracks, I would usually use either piano or Hammond organ, and then overdub other keyboards.
What was used for the piano, organ, and Mellotron parts on the record?
Steven Wilson wrote many of the piano parts, but I played them on the record, using the studio’s Steinway. We used a lot of Hammond. The Mellotron is real, played by Steven. In fact, Steven’s Mellotron is the one used on “In the Court of the Crimson King” and was bought from King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. I played all the Rhodes and Minimoog parts.
How true to the record is the live presentation?
Little things change. The music is a hybrid of rock and jazz, certain sections are always left open, and they change accordingly. “Raider 2” has a nice sax solo section that’s great for bringing in creative ideas on the spot. Steven is playing keyboards on tour as well as guitar. He triggers some Mellotron and organ sounds from [Apple] MainStage and some electric pianos in Lounge Lizard.
What gear are you using to take the record on tour?
Well, we’re not bringing a Steinway! I use the Korg SV-1 for piano, Rhodes, and Wurlitzer sounds. We don’t tour the Mellotron either. Steven and I both use MainStage for Mellotron sounds. I use a Minimoog Voyager live, and MainStage is controlled by a Behringer keyboard controller. The Behringer also controls a Hammond XM2 organ module, and I use its internal Leslie effect.
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So you have both hardware and soft synths onstage? Which do you prefer?
When it comes to live performance, feasibility versus sound determines what we use. I’ve never used a laptop on a gig before this project. It’s better to have things dialed in. As much as I love real piano and Rhodes, the SV-1 is the way to go onstage, especially because you can tweak and save effects to your presets. Also, everyone in the band is on in-ear monitors except Steven Wilson and I. I have monitor wedges, and they’re pretty loud. Piano can sound strange when pumped through monitors at that level, but the SV1 sounds great in those circumstances—I can really pump it volume-wise, and it retains its character and quality. I use a lot of effects live, too. I’ll play Wurly on the SV-1 and run it through a wah and a Moogerfooger ring modulator. I have a voltage pedal hooked up to my Moogerfooger, and I’ll push the pedal to increase the tremolo rate as well as sweep the frequencies. I do a fair amount of soloing on the Voyager, and of course having a hardware synth with all those knobs is definitely better!
- CLICK HERE to see video of Adam's stage keyboard rig with Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree.
Do you find there’s much difference between the sound of a vintage Minimoog and a Voyager?
There are subtle differences, but with a little bit of programming, you can make them sound the same. Of course, I love the touchpad on the Voyager—you can’t do that on a vintage Minimoog.
How do you handle submixing all those sources?
There’s no submixing at all. Each sound source gets its own channel in the front-of-house. Our engineer Mike Bond is awesome, and he mixes all my keyboards from up front. However, I’m still blending patches and volumes in real time. This is the first time I’ve ever gone without submixing my own keyboards first.
Do you find using modern gear like this that once you get the sound how you want it, you’re pretty satisfied?
There might be small tweaks to the levels of patches, but for the most part, those sounds are there. Even though the Voyager has memory, its sounds change a little night to night. The Hammond XM2 with its drawbar unit, though, has really made the organ much more fun to play than the MainStage organs. The module really sounds like a B-3 and a Leslie. Especially though a big P.A.—the difference is undetectable. So all in all, the sounds do change a little bit night to night. But we’re using a narrow spectrum of sounds, so though it’s kind of retro in a way, the sounds really do live and breathe night to night.
You can catch Adam on tour with the Steven Wilson band in Europe through the end of this year, including the Royal Albert Hall in London in October. Find tour dates at stevenwilsonhq.com and visit Adam at adamholzman.com.